Gene Logsdon Blog – The Contrary Farmer

How Much Does Soil Influence Taste?

From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

I had no more finished the post two weeks ago about improving vegetable taste, when I read an interesting interview with Eliot Coleman, a name you all recognize, in the November issue of Acres U.S.A. Eliot has been a leader in perfecting year-round, organic farming— in Maine of all places. One of his most popular crops is “candy carrots” and how he grows them is pertinent to our discussion.  He plants carrots, around the first of August, and when winter cold arrives, he slides a movable greenhouse over the carrots so that the ground doesn’t freeze. He has learned that with a double cover, or a cold frame under a fabric greenhouse cover, the ground, though plenty cold, doesn’t freeze.  In the interview, he says: “When you leave carrots in the ground like this, they protect themselves against the cold by changing some of their starch to sugar, sort of like antifreeze. These are known locally as candy carrots.  We’ve been told by parents that our carrots are the trading item of choice in local grade school lunch boxes.”  

That’s the kind of detail about growing food for better taste that is so intriguing to contemplate. Do we know very much about soil in terms of health and food taste even with all the scientific effort that has been put to it? Does better taste mean better nutrition in the first place? I recently read about Lakeview Organic Grain Farm in upstate New York, known for its flour made from emmer, an old form of wheat.

Gene Logsdon: Keeping Prejudice Alive

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

Some of the latest thinking on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (just getting those letters all out in correct order is enough to give me ADHD) argues that the condition is not really a bodily or mental affliction but a natural state for some people, especially children. Being fidgety, having a short attention span, not being able to concentrate for long on anything in particular— these traits are more or less brought on by the over-regulated, prescriptive world we live in. That sounds plausible to me. But then the learned scientists who are arguing this way go into examples (“A Natural Fix For A.D.H.D.” by Richard A. Friedman in the New York Times, Nov. 2, 2014). They suggest that  ADHD people would be right at home in a hunting and gathering society, like in Paleolithic times, when daily life shifted rapidly from one exciting, dangerous situation to another. It was not until humans settled into the boring routine of sedentary agriculture that such people became estranged and out of touch with the rest of society and started suffering from what would later be diagnosed as ADHD.

Once more farming is depicted as boring. After a lifetime of being subjected to this kind of stereotypical thinking,  I know I should just ignore it.  Anybody who has had the least bit of experience in agriculture knows it is one of the most  exciting ways in the world to lose your money or your life. But when the stereotypical thinking comes from places like the Weill Cornell Medical College, I must protest.

Gene Logsdon: Another Kind of Baby Food

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

As a society, we strive valiantly to get people to eat more vegetables. That always brings up a question in my mind: why don’t we have to strive valiantly to get people to eat more filet mignon, chocolate, and whipped cream? Answer: Obviously, these foods taste good while vegetables still often taste like seaweed floating in the backwaters off New Orleans. I know, I know. Vegetables can taste good too, but the fact is that more often than not, even today, they don’t live up to the good taste that they are capable of. The skill and especially the knowledge involved in coming up with a really good plate of vegetables is still rather rare and there’s no excuse for it. Small scale garden farmers can take advantage of the situation and squeeze a lot more market opportunity out of it. Most short order restaurants don’t know diddily about good-tasting vegetables because their customers don’t either, so why bother. Mass production won’t work because in many cases the vegetable, to taste really delicious, has to be harvested before it can be handled by field machines. Even pricey restaurants have a hard time getting the good stuff which is why some have started their own gardens next to their restaurants. But in most cases the demand isn’t there yet because the consumers don’t know what they are missing. Too many of us merely tolerate vegetables going back to childhood when, if we didn’t eat the stuff, we wouldn’t get dessert. We’ll pay $30 a pound for a restaurant steak quicker than they will pay half that amount for a succulently fresh salad. Just as happened with breads and beers, there needs to develop a market for specialty boutique vegetables and that means dedicated and enlightened garden farmers and cooks to spread the word.

A good case in point is shelling peas.

Gene Logsdon’s Practical Skills: Making Wooden Combs

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer
Excerpt from Practical Skills 1985

My son has been making wooden combs in his workshop. They are strikingly beautiful, and they do comb hair. They also make excellent letter or note holders on a desk. Much of the beauty comes from the wood itself. Since only scraps are needed to make the combs, one can use black walnut, rosewood, zebra wood, and other exotic woods without denting the pocketbook. Or one can use unusual woods generally available only in small widths or pieces, like pear, peach and sassafras. The block of wood needed for a comb rarely exceeds 4 to 6 inches wide, 5 or 6 inches long, and 3/8 inch thick (never more than 1/2-inch thick).

The teeth must run in the same direction as the grain or they will quickly break off, but other than that, the design is up to you. Cut the teeth in the block first, then taper the block and teeth to the proper shape. You can cut the teeth with a table saw, handsaw, or bandsaw. The table saw makes it easier to cut straight and uniform teeth, since you can use the saw fence as a guide. But the saw kerf should be no wider than 1/8-inch and preferably smaller. Most table saw blades leave a kerf a bit large for a comb. My son uses a band saw because the blade makes a smaller kerf. But some skill is involved in making a band saw cut a perfectly straight line. A wavy cut shows up clearly in a comb.

Gene Logsdon: Marking Time On The Farm

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

Like most of you, I’m sure, I’ve developed ways to tell time by eyeing up the sun with various fixed features on the farm. When I’m hoeing in the garden in the summer,  I know it’s about time for lunch when the farthest reach of tree shade from the woods brushes the garden boundary. This changes a bit every day so it’s a little tricky but Swiss watch precision is not necessary. As a boy, cultivating corn in rows running north and south in early June, I knew that when the shade of the muffler top sticking up above the tractor hood reached the third corn row over to the east, it was about five o’clock and time to go home for chores. Who needs watches?

When I left the city office environment, I stripped off my watch and put it in a dresser drawer where it still resides. I think of a wristwatch as a manacle chaining me to a way of life that reckons time as money. Not for me. I want to live where work is so interesting that I don’t care what time the clock says it is. At the office I was constantly glancing at my watch wondering if it was time to go home yet. On the farm in somewhat younger years I could hardly believe how fast the time went by before Carol was calling me in for supper. Or I might get a notion between the corn rows to go sit under a shade tree beside the creek and watch the water flow by. No boss was going to hound me to get back to work. The worst thing to happen to farmers was headlights on tractors which made time seem more like money. Then we felt compelled to work all night and owe the bank more than ever.

Gene Logsdon: Food Fads Affect Farming

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

Perhaps no human activity, other than killing other humans, has a longer history than diet regulations that prohibit some foods and glorify others.  Even in the biblical garden of paradise there was forbidden fruit. And the reasoning behind forbidden fruit is always the same. Eating the right foods and avoiding the wrong ones means living longer, perhaps forever. Humans are always suckers for that pitch.

Just as the prohibition against meat on Fridays in the Catholic Church helped the fishing industry in medieval Italy, so the latest fad, the Paleo diet, should prove to be a boon to grass-fed chicken and livestock producers because Paleos are supposed to eat only meat raised on grazed pastures without, heaven forbid, grains. The Paleo philosophy believes that modern meats no longer have the nutritional value of the wild meat that prehistoric humans enjoyed. Modern meat has turned real, red blooded cavemen and cavewomen into pansies. Today the only easily obtainable meat that comes close to the wild meat of Paleolithic times is the grass-fed kind.

Gene Logsdon: The  Absence of Noise

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

Ask me what I like best about our homestead and my first answer will be the absence of noise. Of course it’s not always quiet but there are blessedly silent hours, like now as I sit on the deck on a  warm October evening, gazing at the changing leaves, sipping bourbon and not wishing to be anywhere else or doing anything else in all the world. A neighbor has just finished combining the cornfield next to us and the harvester’s mighty engine is silent. There are no grain trucks thundering down the road. No airplanes cross the skies above, no trains rumble on the tracks just east of us, no one is mowing lawn in the neighborhood, no chainsaws at work in the woods. Peace.

An absence of noise does not mean there are no sounds in the air. Quite the opposite. Without the cacophony of technology numbing my ears, I can hear a bit of wind rustle in the trees, catch the peevish peep of a nuthatch questioning ownership of an acorn with another nuthatch, discern the whisper of hummingbird wings fluttering above my head, note a chicken up at the barn bragging about a just-laid egg, spot the squirrel that is scolding me from the nearby oak, listen to a gang of crows on the other side of the woods giving a hawk or an owl a hard time, wonder what two tree frogs croaking back and forth to each other from the trees are saying about possible rain tomorrow.

Gene Logsdon: Commenting On Your Comments

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

I just must take time out from my regular postings to thank all of you for your extraordinary kindness, intelligence and good humor in responding to what I write. What you say makes better reading than what I say and I am so very grateful. When, for example, Tim, whom I have never met, recently mentioned [on Gene’s blogsite here] specific stories that I wrote many, many moons ago, I was just flabbergasted— and touched. And then Beth Greenwood, after many very down to earth and practical observations about farming, starts quoting classic Latin sayings!  And I would almost bet that the wonderful poem Russ quotes and says is anonymous is something he wrote.  I do know him and he is quite capable of writing good poetry.

It never seemed to me that anyone was paying much attention to my scribblings over the years. I did get some really precious letters occasionally, mostly handwritten on lined paper— even Wendell Berry writes to me that way— but that very fact suggests that my readers are not part of anybody’s majority. I have chosen to write  mostly about how important farming is to everyone, both as science and art. That means I have the attention of only a small portion of the public. I would have had a much better chance of success if I had decided to write about sex culture or sports culture, not agriculture. Now, however, you responders have me wondering if perhaps the new interest in food and how to produce it without collapsing another civilization, might be on its way to become almost as popular as Lady Gaga and Lebron James.

Gene Logsdon: Practical Skills — A Home Cistern…

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer
Excerpt from Practical Skills 1985

Where well water is not conveniently available in the country or is so hard that it rusts the plumbing out in only a few years, a cistern is not the old-fashioned impracticality most of us moderns believe. A neighbor, Gerald Frey, who is in the construction business, just finished building himself a new house. He equipped it with a large cistern — not difficult for him to do since he is one of the few builders I know who still builds cisterns commercially. “We don’t get too many calls anymore, except from members of our own family. We’ve all been brought up on cisterns and much prefer the taste of rainwater.

Although a good cistern costs as much as a well, Frey points out that from then on the savings are all on the side of the cistern: no water softener needed, no monthly charging with salt. The cistern pump is far cheaper to run than a well pump. Rainwater requires less soap to get a clean wash and glistening hair. Clothes are not stained yellowish as from hard water. And corrosion from rainwater is far less than from hard.

Gene Logsdon: Stay Home

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

I am tempted to write a book titled “Stay Home and Save The World” or something to that effect, but I don’t know of any publisher crazy enough to take it on. Our whole culture is completely locked into travel mode and any idea of changing that would have no more success than trying to stop people from drinking beer. We think, live and breathe traveling. So much so, that some 40% of the CO2 we are churning into the environment comes from travel (so I read but I am wary of all numbers). Maybe we could reduce our CO2 emissions to safe levels just by staying home much of the time. But only we ramparts people are going to say that. Cutting travel to a significant degree might bring on another great depression. It’s as if we would give up our utilities before we’d give up extraneous travel.

I really don’t think it would be that difficult. I’d much rather stay home than go traveling and when I read the travel ads in newspapers and magazines, I am all the more convinced. Much of the jolly things the ads promise I have at home. The current Hilton Hotel ad says it all: “Feel At Home In Our Home.” Really? Why not just stay home and save the money.

Gene Logsdon: Auction Anguish

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

I used to love to go to farm auctions. I always hoped to find a bargain that no one else recognized. There was nothing like spotting an old book that I knew was worth maybe $50, and then being able to buy it along with a box of ho-hum volumes, for a dollar. For awhile early in married life I even fantasized about making a living scouting out rare old books and selling them for a thousand percent profit. But lots of other people had the same idea, and rarely was I able to make any profit at all.  But it was fun trying.

Same thing with antiques at farm sales. I’d go to one hoping that no professional antique dealers would be there. It rarely happened. They always knew which of Grandmaw’s old dishes were worth twenty dollars and which were  worth twenty cents.

Gene Logsdon: Trivia That May Not Be So Trivial

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

Almost every day I observe something on our homestead that is quite remarkable in a humble sort of way. I think maybe I should write about it but then  the big news of the day comes flooding in and I almost feel guilty that I find joy in these little things around me. I should be all hitched up in the nervous regions about how the world is falling apart.  But I am going to ignore the world’s apparent disintegration today for what could be more important events in the long run.

Trivia No. 1: We store potatoes over winter in a plastic bin sunk in the hillside of the backyard. Maybe three inches and the lid stick out above the ground. I went out to clean out the few old wrinkled spuds left over from last year to make way for the new crop. I was taken aback to find a potato plant, about six inches tall, growing out of the lid. Impossible. Carefully lifting the lid, I found a long potato vine had grown up from an old potato under the remnants of straw (we store the potatoes with alternate layers of straw) in the bottom of the bin. Somehow it spotted a hint of light above (can potato eyes see??), climbed up the side wall and squeezed through the edge of the lid and upwards into the sun. I was totally mystified, because the lip of the box is rounded and the lid fits down over that lip, watertight and, I thought, light tight. But then I remembered. I had drilled tiny holes around the edge of the box to allow for a bit of air circulation. That vine had snaked its way up to one of those holes, perhaps the only one that emitted light, and squirmed through. You can imagine what luck I’d have if I deliberately tried to grow potatoes that way.

Gene Logsdon: Wanted — A Farmer

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

Reading “Help Wanted” sections  in local rural newspapers, I am moved to smiles or tears or both at one advertisement that appears more and more often these days. It goes like this: “Looking for a good, full time, all around farm assistant to drive modern farm equipment and trucks for all farm operations including planting, spraying and transporting crops. Must be self-motivated and willing to learn.  Must take responsibility for maintaining and repairing  equipment. Must be willing to work long hours and weekends during peak seasons. Wage based on experience.”

There is so much irony involved here. Let me count the ways.

Gene Logsdon: Pssst…. Wanna Invest In a 900,000 Acre Farm?

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

In the early 1970s, I left Marvin Grabacre within the pages of Farm Journal magazine just after he had, in the 21st century, bought out his last competitor who owned the other half of the U.S. farmland. Now he owned it all. Half of the U.S. had not been a large enough economic unit for a farming enterprise, he said. And he was already thinking about buying Japan, figuring he could sell off  Arizona and New Mexico to get the equity in his stock portfolio that he needed to attract that kind of investor money. Arizona and New Mexico would soon run out of water anyway, he figured, so why not get rid of them while the price was still high.

Gene Logsdon: How Many People Equals Too Many People? 

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

Agriculture’s most earnestly held article of faith is that if farmers can continue to increase production to meet the ever-rising demands of population growth, future food shortages and the upheavals that so often follow can be avoided. If you care to look at the situation from a somewhat different angle, the opposite is truer. The more food an agricultural system produces, the more it encourages population growth, and the more the population grows, the greater the chances that social stress, war, genocide and famine will follow. One would think that after elegantly feasting on good food, humans would just want to lean back, belch and enjoy their good fortune. Instead they haul off and procreate more people to join the feast.

I used to brandish Farmers of Forty Centuries as the ultimate last word in sustainable food production and the best answer to avoiding world hunger. I was wrong. That book describes farming in Asia in the early 1900s when more food was being produced  there per acre than anything the gene manipulators or the organic producers today have come close to imitating. All it did was keep population growing so that more food had to be produced. China, especially during its wars with Japan in the 1930s, suffered horrendous genocidal depopulation which in turn disrupted its highly refined and intricate garden-farming agriculture. Hunger followed genocide, did not precede it. North Africa, culminating in the destruction of Carthage, suffered the same kind of fate. It had developed a remarkably productive agriculture in what was mostly a somewhat desert-like environment. The success of that agriculture encouraged population increases that brought social instability, wars, and the collapse of its agriculture. Then came the decline of its civilization.

Gene Logsdon: Pseudo Cisterns To The Rescue

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From GENE LOGSDON

When I read about the resurgence of rain barrels going on these days, I think of them as part of the urban scene for some reason, not something popular out here where the corn grows tall. So I was more than a little surprised when our local Soil and Water Conservation District began selling them. Fifty bucks.  Here in my neighborhood, more people have farm ponds and cisterns than rain barrels, and those of us who do catch roof water in small amounts have managed to equip ourselves with barrels without, God forbid, spending money for one. If you can’t beg a free barrel, you just ain’t real country yet.

Actually, I would buy a rain barrel if I had to. We’ve always kept one or two  around the place, even back when we lived in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I’ve  used them mainly so that I don’t have to carry water to the chickens. A barrel is certainly cheaper than a pipe line, well, cistern or pond. What I finally did in the suburbs so as to have water handy throughout winter, was to partially bury a galvanized steel stock tank of about 30 gallons behind the chicken coop and rabbit pens, a sort of cheap, tiny cistern with boards over it for a cover, and ran a length of roof guttering from the coop roof to the tank.

Gene Logsdon: Love and Hate In the Chicken Coop

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

We are in the process of moving our pullets in with the old hens. No big deal in this case since I am talking four pullets and three hens. The coop is about ten by twenty feet in size, plenty of room for seven chickens. The pullets since birth have lived on one side of a chicken wire fence that divides the coop, with the hens on the other side. All day, all night, since May, they have been able to watch each other closely, smell each other, listen to each other, even able to nuzzle or peck through the fence at each other if they wanted to. The chicks in fact preferred to huddle against the fence, as close to the hens as they could get when I came in the coop. The hens paid the chicks no mind whatsoever.

We all know what happens when you put a strange chicken in with your flock.  The resident birds will attack with a vengeance. I think it says in the bible that humans are the only creatures that will kill their own kind but chickens will too. And even after they have spent a couple months separated by only a flimsy wire fence, the dominant group still attacks the other mercilessly when they are put together. I usually introduce the two groups slowly and tentatively, by way of contact outdoors, where the pullets can escape their aggressors until the two groups get used to each other. In that situation, it always amazes me how the pullets go back into the coop at night with the hens.

Gene Logsdon: Farmers Learned Long Ago How To Handle The Weather 

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From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

I give Monopoly Farming credit for one thing: it knows what needs to be done to make agriculture as certain of profit as manufacturing can be. Control the weather. That at least would make it easier to sell stock in gigantic farm enterprises. And the kind of mentality that achieves success in manufacturing thinks it knows just how to do that. Turn Big Data loose on weather records so that crops can be planted precisely at the best time and place for profitable yields. All big business thinks it needs are minutely-detailed, computer-collated statistical records on every raindrop, every temperature degree, every whisper of wind, every vortex shift of every pole, every oscillation of every ocean ripple, every zig and zag of every jet stream. Then the farmer will know, unerringly, when and where to plant wheat in Russia, soybeans in Brazil, corn in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, etc. No more guesswork, no more risk. Data will rule. As all successful business people know,  it’s just a matter of having enough facts in your portfolio. The money will roll in. The world will be fed. Heaven will be now.

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